Burning Yule logs is a tradition dating back long before the birth of Jesus. In pre-Christian times, the Yule log was burned in the home hearth on the winter solstice in honor of the pagan sun god Odin, known also as the Yule Father or Oak King.
The winter solstice, known amongst pagans as Yule or Gwyl Canol Gaeaf, falls on December 21 or 22, whichever is the shortest day and longest night of the current year. The Yule festival symbolizes a battle between the powers of light (Oak King) and powers of darkness (Holly King). A Yule log, typically a thick branch taken from a oak tree, would be burned in the hearth beginning on this night as a celebration of the Oak King’s triumphant defeat over the Holly King.
|Burning the Yule log|
The traditional Yule celebration would begin at dawn with the cutting of the oak branch, which was then ceremoniously carried into the house. Lit by the father or oldest member of the family, the Yule log would be left to burn for the next 12 days. When evening arrived the family would gather for dinner, which would typically included mutton, goose, pork, beef, special Yule breads, porridge, apples, sweets, nut and Yule ale.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe the traditional Yule celebration became associated with the celebration of Christmas and the birth of Jesus, the Yule
Father being replaced with Father Christmas. In Serbia, the Yule log, or badnjak as it is called there, is cut and burned in the hearth as part of its Christmas festivities. In years past, the head of the family would go into the forest on Christmas Eve morning to cut down the badnjak. Before bringing it home he would take the log to the church for a special blessing. In more recent years, the badnjak ins usually gotten at marketplaces or form the churches.
The Yule log is a part of French tradition as well, especially it’s Yule Log Cake or Buche de Noel. This traditional Christmas dessert is made from a sponge cake that has been baked in a shallow pan. After baking, the cake is filled with a creamy frosting, rolled up into a cylinder, and frosted with the remaining frosting along the top and sides so as to resemble a tree log. A small portion of the cake is usually cut off and placed alongside or on top of the larger piece in order to reveal the bark-like appearance of its insides. For some bakers, adding meringue mushrooms for that extra woodsy look not only enhances the realism of their Yule log but also is a lot of fun. “The Bouche de Noel” is a very favorite, traditional French cake during the holidays.
The creation of this culinary Yule Log, now baked throughout the world, dates back to Napoleon I. A stern believer that cold air caused medical problems, Napoleon issued a proclamation requiring households in Paris to keep their chimneys closed during the winter month, preventing resident from burning the Yule log.
|Yuel log cake or Buche de Noel|
French bakers invented the Buche de Noel as a symbolic replacement. In England, according to the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program, On Christmas Eve, members of the household ventured into the woods to find and cut a great tree, preferably an oak. Size was important, because the Yule log had to burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Once cut, the log was dragged home with much celebration. As many people as possible grabbed onto the ropes to help pull, because doing so was believed to bring good luck in the new year. Even passersby raised their hat in tribute.
The Yule log was dragged to the hearth of the great open fireplace, a common household feature in old England. The log was lit with a scrap of burned log carefully preserved from the previous year, a practice that ensured the continuity of good fortune not only from year to year, but also from generation to generation.
As a Christmas tradition, burning the Yule log eventually spread from England to America. It’s more popular fame as a tradition in the U.S., especially in New York, comes in the form of a televised Yule log broadcasted first in 1966 at the WPIX television station in New York when Fred Thrower, the then General Manager for the television station, brought the tradition of burning the Yule log into viewers homes. Inspired b a Coke commercial he had seen depicting Santa Claus in front of a fireplace the previous year. Thrower, and then WPIX-FM programming director Charlie Whittaker, created the Yule Log, a Christmas program featuring an actual Yule log burning in a fireplace. The crackling wood fire, accompanied by the music of Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and others, played non stop for two hours on Christmas Eve. Filmed at Gracie Mansion, the Yule Log was Thrower’s Christmas gift to New Yorkers who hadn’t a home hearth. The program aired continuously from 1966-1989.